Sunday 1 September 2013

Short Story Sunday: A Flawed Treasure and a Good Mother

The Exile, by Betty Miller, is a little odd, and I didn’t really enjoy it, but it was interesting. Here we have the Moores, Edmund and Louis, and his young brother Arthur. They are middle class and well-off, leading comfortable, cosy lives but are made uneasy by the appearance of their new servant. Russian Irina is pale, effacing and reserved, with a ‘surprisingly deep and vibrant’ voice. On the face of it she is perfect. She’s an ‘exquisite’ cook, ‘adept and thorough’ at the housework, ‘incredibly willing’ and a ‘very hard’ worker. She is, as Lois tells everyone, a treasure. A real treasure.

So what is wrong with her you ask? For something must be wrong. And so it proves. Their Domestic Goddess isn’t a murderer, she doesn’t run away with Edmund or Arthur, she doesn’t steal, she’s not a political agitator (I might have preferred the story if it had gone down one of those routes). She doesn’t intrude, or disrupt, or take over, or turn their lives upside down. She simply makes them feel uncomfortable and, since they are not used to being made to feel uncomfortable, they do not like it. It transpires that Irina has a tragic past. She tells her tale, dispassionately, without emotion, unable to move on from what has happened and start living again. She calls to mind The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Sarah Woodruff’s determination to reject the chance of happiness and stick with misery. Personally I’ve always found Fowles’ ending thoroughly unsatisfactory, because it seems out of character – Sarah’s final choice of lifestyle (whichever ending you opt for) is at such a variance with her earlier character. Anyway, Irina could never be accused of lack of consistency.

…it became startlingly obvious that what remained of her life after that time had been blighted: consumed by the past, by those strange, tragic months. She was bound by that past situation: it claimed her, used her up. So that her life in the present was meaningless: she existed, imprisoned in our day-to-day sequence, imprisoned in Time. She was an exile, not only from a country (a geographical area can, after all, be reclaimed), but from her own real life. As a personality she was dead.

The house has never been so well run, but life means nothing to Irina, and her ‘deadly
Betty Miller.
negativeness’ destroys the family’s own joy and pleasure in life, undermining their values and drawing them close to the void. But they never actually fall. Irina is asked to leave, and I assume that they forget their frightening glimpse into the abyss, and their brush with thoughts of death, and that life proceeds as normal.

To a large extent I suspect my reaction to the tale is very similar to that of the Moores to Irina, and I wondered if Miller had, perhaps, banked on that, and wanted people to think about things they had rather not (does that make sense?)  She was the mother of Jonathan Miller, the doctor and director, which is interesting, but has no bearing on this story, and didn’t make feel more kindly about it. I gather that she wrote seven novels, as well as short stories, none of which I feel any desire to read, and a biography of Robert Browning, which sounds more tempting because I like his poetry.

I’ll tell you what, since I am feeling generous, I shall add in my thoughts about the next tale in The Persephone Book of Short Stories, because it is a very short short story, and although I loved it I don’t have a lot to say about it. Themes explored by Dorothy Canfield Fisher in The Rainy Day, the Good Mother and The Brown Suit will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has read The Home-Maker – and if you loved that you will love this.

Here the Good Mother has followed all the instructions in ‘The Happy Child is an Active Child’
Dorothy Canfield Fisher.
to keep her three children occupied on a rainy day, but they are unaware of what is required of them. Indeed, the only thing little Freddy wants is to wear his brown suit, which has been washed, and is still wet. A battle of wills ensues, and everyone is miserable until the mother’s young cousin arrives, tells a silly story, plays a silly imaginative game and discovers that what Freddy wants is not the brown suit itself, but its holster pocket where he can carry his pretend pistol. Easy peasy, says the student cousin (well, not quite in those words, after all, this was published in 1937). Let’s all sew pockets on our clothes. At which point he rushes off to catch his bus, and the Good Mother comes to the rescue with material so the children can sew ‘queer pockets’ in ‘queer places’ on their clothes. All is sweetness and light, and after lunch they give her the starring role in their play, because she was too busy to join in their earlier version.

Anyone who’s ever watched their offspring ignoring expensive and thoughtfully chose birthday and Christmas presents in favour of wrapping paper, ribbons and boxes, will recognise the truth of the picture drawn here, and sympathise with the harassed mother, who loves her children dearly, but does not always have the time to really listen to them, and cannot always see that you don’t need lots of posh or toys or complicated games, you just need some imagination.

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